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Last month, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) made waves when it announced the sale of three paintings by Brice Marden, Clyfford Still, and Andy Warhol in its collection to fund staff salaries, equity programs, and new acquisitions. The move was met with criticism from some members of the museum’s community, including former curators, who claimed the works were an integral part of the collection’s modern and contemporary art holdings.
Pressure continues to mount on the BMA this week as a group of former trustees and other museum supporters are calling for a formal investigation into the decision. In a letter first reported by the local outlet BmoreArt, they ask Maryland’s Attorney General and Secretary of State to look into “the hasty and opaque deaccession of three iconic works” and intervene to stop the sale from taking place.
However, the clock is ticking, as two of the deaccessioned paintings — Marden’s “3” (1987-1988) and Still’s “1957-G” (1957) — will go under the hammer as part of Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale on October 28. The third work, a 25-foot-long canvas from Warhol’s last series of paintings, “The Last Supper” (1986), is being offered privately by the auction house with a $40 million guarantee.
According to Laurence Eisenstein, a former board member who led the effort to write the letter, the missive was initially signed by a group of 23 past board and contemporary accession committee members. More than 60 cultural workers and stakeholders in the Baltimore art world have signed on since then.
The works are expected to bring in a combined total of $65 million, $10 million of which will be used to acquire more works by women and artists of color. The bulk of the proceeds, approximately $54.5 million, will endow a fund to support salaries for staff caring for the collection, including curators, art handlers, and administrative staff; $500,000 will be directed to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) initiatives.
Among the letter’s principal concerns is a potential conflict of interest posed by the sale of the works to fund the salaries of curators, some of whom were asked to vote on the deaccession.
“We applaud efforts to achieve pay equity, and to increase salaries of underpaid lower-level staff,” they write. However, the BMA’s director “placed the curatorial staff in an untenable position,” they continue.
“We understand that the unanimous curatorial support reported by the BMA for deaccessioning was critical to several of the accession committee members and trustees who subsequently gave their vote to approve deaccessioning,” the letter continues.
In a statement provided to Hyperallergic, the BMA called the allegations of a conflict of interest “unfounded.”
“The lowest paid hourly wage earners within the institution — none of whom were involved in determining the works for sale — are the only individuals for whom a specific pay increase has been defined,” the museum said. “Members of HR and senior leadership are working to map out additional positions in need of pay increases in order to achieve equitable compensation across the institution.”
The BMA shared with Hyperallergic the results of a vote held during a board meeting on October 1 that reflect supermajority support for the deaccessioning proposal. Of the 37 members voting, only two voted against deaccessioning the Still and Warhol and one against the Marden.
The museum also confirmed that an honorary, non-voting trustee announced their resignation from the board during the deliberations, but has not submitted a formal notice.
The letter also claims that the museum did not properly exercise its fiduciary duty in the valuation of the works. By entrusting all three works to Sotheby’s instead of seeking competitive proposals from different auction houses, and by offering the Warhol privately rather than on the open marketplace, the BMA may have missed an opportunity to maximize sales proceeds, the authors argue.
“Instead, the BMA made an exclusive deal with Sotheby’s to auction the works,” they write. “All this while the BMA’s finances have remained steady, and the BMA’s staff has not been subject to layoffs, belying any sense of urgency to a sale, or any need to bypass normal due diligence.”
The authors go on to cite a comparably-sized “Last Supper” painting sold at Christie’s three years ago for over $60 million with fees — well over Sotheby’s $40 million guarantee. (It is worth noting, however, that the work offered by Christie’s is the last painting Warhol is known to have created in his lifetime, possibly contributing to its value, and formally differs from the BMA work in its tiled rather than single-image composition.)
In its statement, BMA said that leadership “worked in collaboration with Sotheby’s experts to determine that a private sale would be the most effective format for the sale of The Last Supper, and that the works by Marden and Still should go to public auction.”
“Both formats are commonplace approaches to the sale of art, and these decisions are driven by an awareness of market value, an understanding of the quality and singularity of the works themselves, and knowledge of the existing pool of prospective buyers,” the BMA added.
Beyond the issue of the works’ exclusive consignment to Sotheby’s, however, the letter questions whether selling them was necessary at all.
The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has historically taken a hard line on deaccessioning, but loosened some of its restrictions earlier this year amid the coronavirus crisis. But Eisenstein, who sat on the museum’s board from 2010 to 2016 and served as chair of its contemporary accession committee for several years, told Hyperallergic that the BMA’s decision does not seem to align with AAMD’s recommendations, which suggest that such actions should be last-resort measures.
“I understand this is not driven by the museum having severe financial issues due to the pandemic,” he said. “In fact, the budget has been increasing over the past years, so I would say there’s a concern as to it not meeting the spirit of the AAMD guidelines.”
According to the letter, the State of Maryland has made significant financial contributions to the museum, including $11.25 million in capital funding to facilitate renovations. As such, the authors argue, the state has an “important public and financial interest in the BMA.”
The letter provides a list of outstanding issues surrounding the deaccession, questioning the museum’s choice of the three paintings over works of a “less iconic stature or of a duplicative nature” as well as the “rush to sell them.” The authors also ask why trustees did not raise funds for operating expenses through “standard fundraising procedures” instead.
Finally, the letter says that the Warhol canvas was a “groundbreaking acquisition” of a work by a queer artist — a point also made by Kristen Hileman, a former senior curator and head of the BMA’s contemporary department — and maintains that its sale contradicts the museum’s commitment to acquiring works by underrepresented groups.
The museum says that its decision to deaccession the works, part of a new pandemic response plan titled “Endowment for the Future,” is an acknowledgment of the just demands that institutions move “beyond mere rhetoric towards measurable actions with measurable consequences.”
“The BMA’s deaccession provides fresh opportunity for curators to reshape the narratives told within its walls and to present a fairer and more fulsome art history. Equally, this effort acknowledges the museum’s dual responsibility to create an internally equitable structure and an externally equitable and mutual relationship with its diverse publics,” the statement reads. It continues:
In Baltimore, a city whose population is 63% Black, this responsibility is particularly salient and essential to our future relevance. In our discussions about the sale of works by three well-recognized, historically anointed artists, it is critical to acknowledge the vast range of new voices that the museum will be able to share and engage through this effort.
Though the former board members’ letter states their support for the museum’s stated goals in deaccessioning the works, they believe that this could be achieved through other means.
“I think there is a broader story here than the Baltimore Museum,” Eisenstein said. “We’re not going to see the end of these rounds of deaccessions. Part of our motivation was, if we don’t speak out now, what lies ahead? It’s important for there to be a voice out there.”
In its statement, the BMA said that it has reached out to Secretary of State John C. Wobensmith and Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh and looks forward to “working with them to answer any questions that they may have, and to sharing any necessary documents or additional details.”